This Week's Sermon
Advent 1 – December 1, 2019 – Isaiah 2:1-5
It’s finally here. The Christmas season. Now you can blast Bing Crosby and Michael Buble from your car stereo without fear of judgment. Now you can proudly break out your Christmas coffee mugs, hang the stockings, and dream about all things merry and bright. It’s time to trim the tree and hang the lights. Christmas is often called a season of hope. You’ll see that on decorations in the store, on TV commercials, and it’s often the theme of many Christmas movies. But hope in what? Is your hope for this Christmas that you’re going to get everything that’s on your Christmas list – even if it means buying it as a gift to yourself? Are you hoping for that elusive white Christmas that I don’t think exists in this part of Arizona? Do you have hope that this Christmas, finally, your family will be able to reconcile its differences and come together?
Now, while outside these walls it may be the official start of the Christmas season, here at church, it isn’t Christmas yet. Today is the beginning of Advent. As I said at the beginning of the service, Advent is a time of preparation and of watching and waiting. And this morning, our focus is on watching, waiting, and preparing with hope. But the hope that we have in Advent is not that wishful thinking kind of hope. That fingers crossed, “oh it would be so nice if…,” uncertain kind of hope. Advent hope is in the Lord. And hope in the Lord is hope in what is certain.
Hope in Judah during Isaiah’s day was likely in pretty short supply. In fact, the world probably looked like a bleak, hopeless place. There was political chaos everywhere. Wars waged all around them, nations were forging alliances, and enemies were knocking at their doors. But within their borders was all kinds of chaos too. Judah was stuck in this tug of war match between following God and following false gods. One king would make reforms and people would turn to the Lord, but he would be followed by a king who would undo all the good changes that had been made. It was a never-ending circle. Faithfulness, unfaithfulness. Faithfulness, unfaithfulness. Again and again and again.
This is the world in which Isaiah carried out his ministry. And he comes onto the scene with a bang. In chapter 1, God gives Isaiah a vision that he is to share with the people of Judah. And it’s pretty scathing. God doesn’t have a whole lot of good things to say to the people. In fact, he calls them a sinful nation and corrupted children. God calls them a burden to him! And, as if that weren’t enough, God compares Judah and its people to Sodom and Gomorrah. Things aren’t going very well if God himself is equating you with cities that were so wicked that God rained down fire from heaven to destroy them.
So what’s their problem? The obvious one is that they have been unfaithful to God. King after king led them to idolatry. God even goes so far as to say that the people had abandoned him and turned their backs on him. That’s pretty bad. But the thing is, even in their good days, when they were worshipping the Lord and not false gods, their worship was less than ideal. They were going through the motions. Sure, they would bring their sacrifices to the temple and they would offer up prayers, but everything was hollow. Meaningless, as God says in chapter one. God even goes so far as to say he hates it and that it is detestable to him. As a result, God promises something was coming. The nation was impure and unclean. So God, the avenger, was going to avenge. He promised he would turn his hand against Judah and seek out his revenge. Destruction was on the horizon. God would allow Babylon to come in to plunder, pillage, and deport. With a message like that, it’s not hard to imagine the people feeling hopeless.
But God gives Isaiah another vision. This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:” Oh boy, here we go again. After God’s harsh rebuke in chapter 1, perhaps these hopeless people were expecting more of the same. But instead, God was going to give his people hope. And not that “maybe, just maybe,” “oh, wouldn’t it be great if…” kind of hope. This was real, certain, 100% guaranteed-to-happen hope.
God shows Isaiah the mountain of the Lord’s temple established and lifted high above the mountains and hills. It’s glorious and splendid. And people are streaming to it from all nations. And they’re excited to be going to it! Nobody would have been excited to go to the Judah that was described in chapter 1. But this exalted mountain – this was the place to be. And why were they going? Not to go through the motions, but because they were excited to be taught the ways of God, and not just be taught, but to live out those teachings every day! They would take what they had been taught, and then take it into the world and share it. And the result? Peace. God shows his people the exact opposite of their current reality. This is what he was going to transform his people itno. He was giving them hope that he himself would restore the worship practices and the hearts of Judah!
We maybe don’t feel hopeless right now. Sure, things are a bit crazy around us right now. Election stuff is kicking into full swing and that’s always a wild ride. And there’s some civil unrest around us. But by comparison, our lives are much less chaotic and tumultuous in that sense. And besides – it’s Christmas! It’s the most wonderful time of the year! How could things be hopeless for us? Especially here at church. The music is great this time of the year, and on Tuesday we’re going to this place all decked out with decorations. I can’t wait to see what kind of Christmas-y treats we’re going to have for snacks after church this month. What a great time to be at church! But maybe that’s where we run into to some trouble. Our circumstances might be vastly different from Isaiah’s Judah. And we’re probably not as stuck in the tug-of-war match of faithfulness/unfaithfulness quite in the same way that Judah was. But especially during the weeks leading up to Christmas, we struggle with the exact same problem they did in their worship.
What words would God use to describe Paradise Valley Lutheran? I’d guess it maybe wouldn’t be as pleasant as we would like to think. Let’s focus just on this time of the year, the weeks leading up to Christmas. Do we turn our backs on the Lord at Christmastime? Do we abandon him for the sake of the tree and the lights and the decorations? Do we focus so much on those songs and melodies that are so dear to our hearts that even as we sing God’s name he gets pushed aside? Do the gatherings and gifts cause us to lose our focus on Christ? God said Judah was just going through the motions. Is that us? We’ve said the words of the confession and the Lord’s Prayer so often that they roll off our tongues without us digesting what it is we’re saying. The significance and importance of receiving the Lord’s Supper go out the window and we just shuffle our feet to the front of church because it’s the second Sunday of the month. That leaves us in no better shape than Judah. And now that hopelessness they felt, might seem a bit more real. Because that’s us. God had announced judgment on them for the very same things that we do. Hope? What hope? We see what we’re deserving of, and it isn’t pretty.
But we aren’t hopeless. God gives us hope today. And it’s the same hope that he gave to Judah all those years ago. It hasn’t changed since then. That picture that God showed Isaiah of the exalted mountain of the Lord was not a real mountain. It wasn’t the rebuilt Jerusalem after God brought his people back from captivity. The mountain of the Lord’s temple is Zion. It’s his Church. It’s us! The hope God gave to Judah was that was he was going to establish his Church glory. It would tower above the nations and would be the cause for celebration. God would do this, not the church, not the churchgoers. God himself.
So when would this exaltation come? When would God lift up his church that looked to be in ruins from lackluster hearts and sleepwalking attitudes? It’s what we celebrate in 25 days. The “he” who would come to establish Zion is the “he” who was born in a manger in Bethlehem. The hope for Judah was totally wrapped up with and connected God’s promise to send a Savior. And so our hope is tied to and connected that blessed birth as well. It’s Christmas where God says to his people, “See? I told you this was a certain, rock solid, unshakeable hope.” Hope in the Lord is trust in his fully guaranteed promises. The exalted Zion was a promise.
He exalted it not because it was deserving, but because God is gracious and loving. And Christ sacrificed himself to make it holy and blameless in God’s eyes. It’s that sacrifice that exalts it and make it a place worth streaming toward. You and I are part of that church. In the child born in Bethlehem, we see our lazy and halfhearted worship and our sleepwalking and the ruts we get stuck in fully and completely forgiven. That is our hope. Our certain hope. When we see this picture, we see reality. We see the church the way that God sees it because of Christ. And forgiveness works a change. This is a changed church. Those sleepwalking attitudes are gone. Now the people go up to be taught. Not to sacrifice – the sacrifice has been paid –but to sit at the feet of God’s Word, and learn of the forgiveness of sins won by Christ. And by learning, we go and walk in the ways we have been taught.
But its also hope for the future. This is how God sees his church. But it is also what is to come. God gave his Old Testament people hope for the future, and so he does with us today. God sees his church this way today because of forgiveness. Our sinful nature will still pollute our attitudes and cause us go through the motions. But God has forgiven us and will continue to forgive us. But when our Savior comes again, he will lift up his church and do away with all those sinful attitudes once and for all. God will make us holy with him, and our desires and will will always align with his. We will always gladly go up to the mountain of the Lord to worship him and be taught by him. And we will have peace. That is our hope – the exalted church not just in God’s eyes but in every eye. All eyes will Zion lifted high. All will know who the Lord is. That is our certain hope.
So this Advent season, as the franticness of Christmas surrounds. let’s keep our focus. The music is wonderful, the decorations beautiful, and the snacks tasty. But that’s not why we come to this place. That’s not why we gather together. That’s not why we have hope this season. We go up to the mountain of Lord so that he may teach us his ways. We gather together to hear the good news of the child born in Bethlehem. Our Savior. We gather together so that he may teach us, and so that by that teaching, we may walk in his ways. Let us all strive to keep that in front of us. To go all-in this Advent season. To really contemplate what is we celebrate. And when we fail? God shows us the hope that we have. We are the exalted Zion. We have been forgiven by our Savior and lifted high. And we have hope for him coming again. Not ‘maybe’ hope. Certain hope.